As the uprising in Egypt moves into its second week, President Obama faces a moment of political peril as he seeks to support pro-democracy protestors and regime change without appearing to turn their fight into a U.S.-backed coup against a longtime ally, potentially undermining the legitimacy of whatever government succeeds that of President Hosni Mubarak and destabilizing relations with other U.S. allies.
As fire-bombs and gunshots flew in Cairo's Tahrir Square Wednesday, White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs condemned the violence as "outrageous" and reiterated U.S. calls for calm, saying, "The United States deplores and condemns the violence that is taking place in Egypt, and we are deeply concerned about attacks on the media and peaceful demonstrators. We repeat our strong call for restraint."
And while GOP leaders gave support to the president's handling of the intensifying conflict in Egypt over the weekend, Republican and conservative critiques of his course of action are nonetheless emerging. They fall along three main lines, though there are already so many subthreads of criticism that the entire waterfront of potential outcomes in Egypt is covered.
This means -- and this is the real domestic political risk for the president -- that critics will be able coalesce at some future date around an argument based on facts on the ground for pretty much any eventuality other than the best-case scenario: a non-violent and prompt transition to a freely and fairly elected government not dominated in parliament or elsewhere by the Muslim Brotherhood or Mubarak cronies.
Here are the main lines of criticism:
Obama is Jimmy Carter
This analytic framework for understanding Obama's presidency has been kicking around for a while, and doesn't just come from Republicans. (See Richard Cohen on "Obama's Carter problem" from last October.)
But the question Walter Russell Mead asked on Fox.com in early January -- "Is Obama the New Carter?" -- has returned with fresh force now that he faces a political crisis in the Middle East with seeming parallels to the Iranian revolution of 1979.
The Washington Times laid out the argument bluntly on Jan. 30: "As Egypt's regime totters on the verge of collapse, President Obama is looking less like Ronald Reagan and more like the Gipper's predecessor, Jimmy Carter. The turmoil in Egypt is markedly similar to the revolution that gripped Iran 33 years ago. Egypt may be to Mr. Obama what Iran was to Mr. Carter."
Rush Limbaugh also took this approach, saying that Obama is repeating Carter's mistakes in his handling of the crisis in Egypt.
This argument seems most likely to take hold if the turmoil in Egypt leads to either of two outcomes: 1) uprising/revolution followed by a democratically-elected government dominated by Islamists or 2) a brutal crackdown on pro-democracy forces by the lame duck Mubarak government, followed by rapidly-conducted elections marred by fraud that elevate one of his cronies into power and change little (except opinion on the Arab street about America).
Obama lost Egypt by failing to maintain Bush's democracy agenda
"I think the White House abandoned the democracy agenda because it was the Bush agenda," former senator Norm Coleman (R-Minn.) told ABC's Top Line Tuesday. "Had the White House been working more closely with the forces in Egypt, understanding that Mubarak could not continue on forever, that there had to be an alternative, an answer somewhere down the road, we might have been in a better position."
Elliott Abrams made a subset of this argument in The Washington Post Sunday in the piece, "Egypt protests show George W. Bush was right about freedom in the Arab world."
"All these developments seem to come as a surprise to the Obama administration, which dismissed Bush's 'freedom agenda' as overly ideological and meant essentially to defend the invasion of Iraq. But as Bush's support for the Cedar Revolution in Lebanon and for a democratic Palestinian state showed, he was defending self-government, not the use of force," Abrams wrote.
"The revolt in Tunisia, the gigantic wave of demonstrations in Egypt and the more recent marches in Yemen all make clear that Bush had it right - and that the Obama administration's abandonment of this mind-set is nothing short of a tragedy."
Jeff Jacoby echoed the critique in the Boston Globe Wednesday, writing, "If US foreign policy in recent years had consistently reflected Bush's freedom agenda' -- if prodding the Arab world toward a democratic renaissance had become an unmistakable American priority -- Egypt might already have made the transition to a moderate, humane, post-Mubarak government. But the freedom agenda didn't survive."
Of course, Bush also gave diminished support to his democracy agenda after the 2005 elections in Egypt, bitterly disappointing pro-democracy forces who were much weaker and more vulnerable at the time (as Jacoby notes). But that won't stop people from pursuing the line of criticism that Obama simply waited to long and was too accommodating to Mubarak, regardless of what happens in the months ahead -- and especially Mubarak is able to hang on to power.
Obama is handing Egypt over to the Islamists
This argument will only gain traction if free and fair elections are held in Egypt that bring the Muslim Brotherhood, currently banned from openly standing for election, to power.
Proponents include Daniel Pipes, who accused Obama of "myopically siding with the Islamists against Mubarak," former House speaker Newt Gingrich, and former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty.
"The president went to Cairo and gave his famous speech in which he explained that we should all be friends together because we're all the same people doing the same things and there are no differences between us," Gingrich said on "The Sean Hannity Radio Show" on Monday. "Well, I think there are a lot of differences between the Muslim Brotherhood and the rest of us."
Egypt could go the way of Iran, he warned, where revolution gave way to theocracy.
Pawlenty took a similar tack, saying the the emergence of an Islamic regime in Egypt is "a great concern," should a power vacuum develop. "Obviously we're at a precipice now where there's going to be change, and the infrastructure -- the political infrastructure of the country -- isn't well-prepared for the change and so it opens the door to mischief and manipulation and other options that are not democratic, that are not fair, not free. And it's in part because we allowed this vacuum to materialize underneath Mubarak," he told reporters in Des Moines Monday.
If Mubarak is able to crack down on the Egyptian opposition sufficiently to stick to his present plan to step down in September, that means that there will be five Republican presidential primary debates before he hands over power -- debates at which would-be GOP leaders will hash out which of these lines of criticism they support.
Republican presidential candidate Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) consistently outpolled Barack Obama on questions of national security and foreign policy in 2008, just as George W. Bush outpolled Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) on such matters in 2004. Obama won election because of his unprecedented campaign, record-breaking fundraising, compelling narrative -- and because 2008 was an economy election, not a foreign policy one.
One of the major challenges Democrats faced in 2010, according to party strategists, was their inability to break through with an economic message that resonated and reach low-information voters with facts about what was in the health-care bill.
Continued instability in Egypt and other Middle Eastern nations -- especially if it leads to increased oil and gas prices at home -- could contribute not only to a negative economic picture but threaten to transform the upcoming 2012 election from one fought on the economy to one fought, once again, on the foreign policy terrain that has proved so tricky for Democrats in years past.
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